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The Southview Cougars may not have the size they normally do as they gun for their sixth straight Northern Lakes League title, but they have speed to burn and an arm to reap the rewards.
Senior quarterback Austin Valdez, who has committed to play at Bowling Green State University, instantly smiles when assessing his wide receiver weapons.
"I feel like we are the fastest team in the area. We have track stars," Valdez said. "I trust every single one of them. They all have great hands."
Valdez, who threw for 1,820 yards and 13 touchdowns, has a deep, talented, and speedy receiving corps. Jenard Pinckney won a district title in the long jump last spring, and Malcolm Johnson won the district title in the 200.
"We might not be as big, but we're very strong and we have speed," Valdez said.
Southview coach Jim Mayzes, who enters his 19th season, has led his team to at least a share of the NLL title in eight of the last nine seasons. Mayzes said he does not have an exceptionally big team but he said it is talented.
"I think we have a good team," he said.
Mayzes said he is a true believer of taking one game at a time to achieve the ultimate goal. The Cougars, who won a state title in 2008, went undefeated in the NLL (7-0) and earned a spot in the playoffs before finishing with a 9-2 record.
"It's like 12 fighters are sitting in front of you and if think about looking at all of them, the guy sitting right in front of you is going to knock you out," Mayzes said. "Sure we want to win the league. But we will worry about one game at a time."
According to a preseason coaches poll, Anthony Wayne poses the biggest threat to end the Cougars' reign. Perrysburg is picked third followed by Maumee, Napoleon, Springfield, Bowling Green, and Northview.
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Anthony Wayne (8-3, 5-2 NLL) is coming off its first playoff berth since 2003, and the Generals hope to build on the momentum of a second-place finish in the league.
Veteran coach Craig Smith enters his 15th season with 16 seniors and 10 letter winners. Junior running back Sam Bruno rushed for 634 yards in Smith's traditional Wing-T offense.
The Generals also will maintain their fine tradition of producing kickers. Junior Jake Hartbarger earned Division I All-District honors last season.
"We feel confident we will have another good football team," Smith said.
Perrysburg is coming off a difficult 6-4 season (4-3 NLL). But the Yellow Jackets have talented dual threat quarterback Steve Slocum back along with a deep receiving corps. The bulk of the offensive line is back as well.
"We're looking to improve upon a disappointing 6-4 season last year," said Perrysburg coach Matt Kregel, who has compiled a 38-16 record in seven seasons.
Slocum, a dual threat at QB, is a third-year starter. He threw for 1,535 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Slocum added 509 yards and six TDs on the ground.
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His top target will once again be senior Austin Bishop (640 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns). Bishop averaged 25.6 yards per catch.
Perrysburg has both Southview (Sept. 28) and Maumee (regular-season finale on Oct. 26) at home this season.
Maumee coach John Boles, whose team went 7-3 and just barely missed a playoff berth, must replace dynamic quarterback Jake Schneider, who led the league in rushing and passing.
Steve Duby, an All-NLL defensive back, will take over at quarterback.
Duby will have an experienced wide receiver to look for with the return of senior Dominique King, who made 34 catches in the regular season to top the league in receiving with 770 yards.
But Boles has a lot of experience returning up front, especially on the defensive line. The Panthers are the last team other than Southview to win a league title. Maumee split with the Cougars in 2009.
Napoleon enters its second season in the NLL after finishing 4-3 last fall.
"We are very excited about our second season of NLL play," Napoleon coach Tory Strock said. "It will present many challenges and opportunities for our players."
Junior running back Byrant Schlade returns after rushing for 627 yards, while senior Charlie Harris is back after rushing for 327 yards.
Strock said he expects to see a very balanced league with a few upsets along the way.
"To be sure, Southview is the king of the hill until someone knocks them off," Strock said. "Perrysburg is getting a lot of preseason accolades. I was very impressed with Anthony Wayne last year."
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Southview travels to Napoleon in the NLL opener on Sept. 14.
Valdez said he also received interest from Ball State, Akron, and Kent State. He said the close proximity of Bowling Green was factor in his decision and former teammate Shaun Joplin also helped convince him to join him at BG.
"It feels like a lot of stress has been lifted off me," Valdez said. "I look forward to being a Falcon."
But first he is a leader of a Cougar program that has already won more titles in a row than any other team in the history of the league.
"This would be our sixth straight. There is some pressure," Valdez said. "But we work hard and it shows. So I feel like we will get it done. Every team's goal is to knock us off. But we just need to execute and not take any plays off."
Contact Mark Monroe at: email@example.com, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade